A monstrous conductor, an ethereal elf, the Norse goddess of the dead and even Bob Dylan: Cate Blanchett is admired for her ability to step into seemingly any role with ease. But her latest role is undeniably a strange one: a talking tiger stalking an empty supermarket, ruminating on 2,000 years of human greed.
“I said to her, ‘Cate, I only need your voice, but I really need it badly’,” says film-maker Julian Rosefeldt, who previously cast Blanchett in 13 roles in his 2015 film Manifesto, including a homeless man, a newsreader and a teacher. In his new film, Euphoria, she only had to embody a tiger. “If she had tried to be the tiger, it probably would sound funny,” Rosefeldt says. “She feels the tiger, let’s say that. And she did a fantastic job. She’s just so good at what she does.”
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Euphoria is an extravagant and surreal take on capitalism and consumption, told through a script almost entirely pieced together from quotes by the likes of Aldous Huxley, Cardi B, Warren Buffett, Plato, Terry Pratchett, Snoop Dogg and Shakespeare. Set to open Melbourne’s 2023 Rising festival on 2 June, Euphoria is an immersive filmic extravaganza that will take over the Melbourne Town Hall, which will be filled with more than 20 gigantic screens. In keeping with its themes, audiences will be able to pay what they want (as long as that falls between $18 and $32). Friday screenings will be entirely free.
Across the film’s six stories, we see a gaggle of homeless men discussing economic theory over a fire pit; a lone taxi driver, played by Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito; a trio of women packaging up purchases in a warehouse; a bank lobby filled with prancing bankers, celebrating the endless grind of the free market; and a group of children who wonder if there will ever be anything else. And of course, Blanchett’s (CGI) tiger. “People say, ‘don’t work with children or animals’, but I think the opposite is true,” Rosefeldt says.
In Melbourne Town Hall, these six stories will play up high as the audience below is encircled by screens showing lifesize footage of singers from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus who, akin to a Greek chorus, respond to the film in time. And above all of that, timed footage of five duelling jazz drummers – including Terri Lyne Carrington and Birdman composer Antonio Sánchez – will play on yet more screens, thrashing out a thunderous score to the heavens.
By all accounts, Euphoria – which premiered in full last year in New York – is overwhelming and, yes, euphoric to witness. “I want to make you enjoy what you see, but also feel like you have been caught in the act,” Rosefeldt says.
Euphoria’s working title was Greed, which felt “too judgmental” to the 58-year-old German artist. He thought of himself as a human criticising capitalism, while also living under it and even sometimes enjoying it. “Euphoria is the word which unites both perspectives on capitalism: those who defend it and those who criticise it,” he says.
Two parts of the film were due to be filmed in Kyiv when Russia invaded Ukraine. “I like to mention this because this is a project which is critical of capitalism, but I also couldn’t afford to shoot in the US, so, following the rules of capitalism, I shot big parts of it in Bulgaria [in] Sofia and Kyiv,” Rosefeldt says. “War is a moneymaking machine and suddenly we were right at the heart of it. I wouldn’t call it luck, because that would be cynical. But I was really lucky to be able to work with all these fantastic Ukrainian people briefly and we left in one of the last civilian airplanes out of Kyiv.”
The delays meant that the film’s planned world premiere at last year’s Holland festival was cancelled. An unfinished version was screened at Germany’s Ruhrtriennale festival and the final product was finally shown at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, which is where Rising co-artistic director Gideon Obarzanek first saw it. “It is absolutely compelling. I could not stop watching. I had to be asked to leave by the guards because they were closing,” Obarzanek says. “I went back day after day to watch it again.”
Rosefeldt says: “I was very worried about US audiences, as a German director pretending to know about capitalism who had set my film in the streets of the US … I don’t think people hated it. Hopefully some people hate it.”
The film’s penultimate story follows a group of teens mooching about an abandoned bus station as they debate whether anything but capitalism is feasible. One girl uses birthday cake as a metaphor: if a cake was cut equally for 12 guests but one couldn’t eat their slice because they were diabetic, would everyone else tear each other apart trying to get more?
“No, because we are taught to not be greedy,” says Rosefeldt. “So why doesn’t that apply to the economy? Why is it considered cool to possess as much as you can? Why is a man like Elon Musk admired for being rich? It cannot be correct that one person makes that much wealth, from the labour of engineers educated using taxpayers’ money, who produce products actually made in factories overseas. But the world runs on this principle.”
Sniffing around the cereal aisle in an empty supermarket, Blanchett’s tiger gets the final “cynical” take on humanity’s prospects, as Rosefeldt describes it. Does that cynicism reflect his own? “Well, the reality is cynical,” he says. “We are running towards our own extinction with open eyes. And yet, there is still hope.”
Rising festival runs 7-18 June; Euphoria will be screened 2-18 June. Tickets go on pre-sale at 12pm AEDT on Tuesday